AN ICE-COOL Bryan Cooper silenced his Cheltenham critics after producing the ride of his life to land the Timico-sponsored Gold Cup on Don Cossack.
The victory vindicated the 23-year-old rider for opting to ride the well-backed favourite over course specialist Don Poli in steeplechasing’s blue riband race. It also laid to rest any lingering doubts about Cooper’s ability to handle pressure-cooker situations after being appointed first jockey to Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary’s ambitious Gigginstown House Stud operation just over two years ago.
Though the four-and-a-half length winning margin over the Willie Mullins-trained and Ruby Walsh-ridden Djakadam was a convincing one as Irish-trained horses filled the first four places, the complexion of an enthralling race changed at the third last when Colin Tizzard’s Cue Card – the standard-bearer for British racing – crashed out.
Not only was Tizzard’s Gold Cup dream in tatters, but the fall cost connections £1m – the bonus that would have been paid out if Paddy Brennan’s mount had added Cheltenham’s showpiece race to the Betfair Chase and King George VI Chase that were won so gallantly earlier in the season.
The crowd’s relief when Cue Card rose to his feet, apparently none the worse, was matched by the reaction when Olympic cycling champion Victoria Pendleton and her mount Pacha Du Polder were an unlikely fifth in the St James’s Place Foxhunter Chase for amateur riders. Less than a year after swapping cycling for a riding career, she, too, proved her doubters wrong.
As for Cooper, the boy wonder of Irish racing, he was overcome with emotion as he paid tribute to his mentor Dessie Hughes, one of the great names in Irish racing, who oversaw the jockey’s formative years in the saddle before succumbing to cancer last year.
“I wouldn’t be in this position if it wasn’t for Dessie, and he was definitely cheering me on over the last,” he said before turning on his own critics.
“There were a lot of press around saying that ‘I couldn’t get on with the horse’ and I think I’ve proved you all wrong now so I’m delighted.
“I think people backed Don Poli more as they thought I’d chosen the wrong one. We proved it though – Don Cossack was the best horse and the highest-rated horse for a reason.”
The win was a first Gold Cup for Irish trainer Gordon Elliott who said he hadn’t been “so nervous in his whole life”.
Now the hard work begins for winning team: Page 11